Always Ask: Why?
by Bronwyn S. Fees, Ph.D.
Family Studies and Human Services
Kansas State University
Children often want to know "why?" It is an important question, especially for early childhood educators. Educators provide stimulating environments such as reading stories, creating songs and fingerplays, asking thoughtful questions, and offering many materials and experiences. However, do we share with others, particularly parents, why we arrange for these specific experiences? For example, why are children given choices, or why are they encouraged to create solutions to solve their own problems? Why do we read to infants and toddlers? Why is free play encouraged? What seems clear to adults who work with children is not always clear to others outside of early childhood and sometimes the enthusiasm for a special activity or experience overshadows thoughtfully asking, "why am I doing this?"
There are many theories that attempt to explain how young children learn and what affects their well-being. Each provider has a theory that guides how he or she interacts with children and families (Malaguzzi, 1997). These theories guide the experiences selected, how the environment is arranged, and the manner in which adults interact with children.
Overall, as early childhood professionals, our goal is to support and guide the on-going development in children. Each and every experience with a child has the potential to affect the child's growth physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively, and in language all at the same time. Curricula created from this perspective is called integrated. For example, when you and the children in your care play with the small wooden blocks, children (of all ages) practice the physical skills of hand-to-hand and hand-eye coordination, finger control, and accuracy. Children represent their thinking by creating objects such as walls or tracks or houses as well as counting and patterning. They are using their vocabulary to describe what they are doing. Listen to children as they talk to themselves while they work. This "private speech" will help you understand their thinking. Children build a sense of autonomy and achievement as the blocks are stacked higher. They practice turn-taking and develop persistence. Certainly, you could add more skills to this list. All of these experiences are happening at once while playing with blocks.
Professionals in early childhood also recognize that children learn best when these integrated experiences are based upon the developmental level of each child. The term developmentally appropriate (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) means that the experiences provided are consistent with the individual developmental level and cultural characteristics of a child. Adults are thinking not only of what the child can do now but what the child recently accomplished and what he/she will be learning to do in the next weeks and months.
For example, think of the 24-month old in your care. Just a few months ago she was learning to walk, talking with one word at a time, banging, dropping, and mouthing objects. Now, she is learning to be independent (says "no" frequently), but needs hugs and assurance from you. She is communicating by combining two or more words, and climbing stairs one foot at a time. She pretends to drink from cups and tries to wrap and cradle her doll rather than banging it. You know that in just a few months, she will become more controlled in her running and coordinate her feet while climbing stairs. She will add more words to her sentences, plan her play, and draw shapes on paper that will represent a familiar object like a dog or house. How are your activities supporting her development? You provide the opportunities to walk the stairs, run and stretch with your supervision. You talk with her frequently about what she sees and is doing. You provide non-toxic markers and large pieces of paper for drawing and dress-up clothes for pretend play.
Through your interactions and the experiences you provide, you are supporting practice in existing skills and helping children with emerging skills that are more challenging and complex. The individual child's level of development is your planning guide.
As you plan for the children in your care, challenge yourself to think developmentally about each experience. Ask yourself how each experience supports children's need to exercise the growing body (physical), to organize ideas and solve problems (cognitive), to communicate (language), to learn about one's self and develop social relationships with others (social and emotional). Don't stop there! Use the words integrated and developmentally appropriate with the parents of your children when you explain what you do. Tell them that you read with the children because through reading, children learn about the purpose of books, extend their vocabulary, create a positive and familiar social relationship, build fine motor skills (by turning pages), as well as engage in predicting, problem solving and sequencing. As early childhood professionals, it is critical for our families and communities to know what we do and why. Share what you know!
Malaguzzi, L. (1997). History, ideas, and basic philosophy: An interview with Lella Gandini. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.). The hundred languages of children (2 ed.) (pp. 49-98). Greenwich: Ablex.
Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (Eds.) (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs (revised edition). Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.